Politics and Perspective in the Artwork of Pax Pamir
About a year after the first edition of Pax Pamir was published, the hard drive on which it was stored crashed. While I had backups in place, some earlier accident had removed the Pax Pamir files from those that were synced each night. While the final print files were preserved, all of the raw images, spreadsheets, and PSD/INDD/AI files were lost.
This was unfortunate, but I didn’t lose much sleep over it. Pax Pamir was very much a learning project for me. At the start of the game’s development, I had a limited familiarity with most of the software that I would use, and I had never undertaken a graphic design project of that scope. Thankfully, my inexperience didn’t stop me from trying, and I soldiered on through each asset, even as I was starting to get my bearings in the various Adobe programs. By the time I submitted the files to the factory, I was painfully aware how horribly built they were. Even if I was happy with how the final product looked, I had no love for the files that got me there. Good riddance to them.
My opinion about this misfortune changed somewhat last year when I first considered the possibility of a new edition of Pamir. In particular, I regretted not having easy access to the card descriptions and a few rare images that I went through great pains to secure. But, all the same, I had learned a lot about graphic design in the intervening years. It made sense to essentially start this new edition over from scratch, so I spread out all of the cards from my first edition on my dining room table and began to enter all of the information into a new spreadsheet.
Rebuilding Pamir also gave me time to reexamine the art direction of the original game. In recent years art direction of board games has come under increased scrutiny, especially the presentation of games with historical subjects. This has been a wonderful development. Games reflect the values of their creators and the context in which they are created. There’s no reason to think that they would be any less sexist or racist than any other form of cultural production. As a player and a student of games, this element is actually one of my favorite things about the form—it’s amazing the different ways ideology can fold itself into a mechanism. And, as a designer, I’ve tried to do my best to create games which push against our assumptions about the world and interrogate the destructive legacies of nationalism and imperialism.
Though all of my games share that ethos, I still think Pamir is most successful in its realization. And yet, as clear-headed as the game is when it comes to its arguments and its mechanisms, I recognize that the art design of the game is considerably less clear. In this piece, I want to talk a little about the politics of Pax Pamir and then consider those politics in relation to how I ultimately chose to present the game.
The Politics of Pax Pamir
One of the things I most admire about Phil Eklund’s games are the degree to which they are political. Every once in a while, I find myself in complete agreement with one of his insights. Other times I find his arguments misguided or old-fashioned, and sometimes I even find them upsetting. But, in every case, they are clear about their intentions. This, I think, is why I tend to feel little sympathy for those that single out Eklund’s designs. Most games have far more horrific politics—Eklund just doesn’t hide it. And, in fact, usually his games provide you ample space to disagree with his positions. You simply cannot judge the game in total by all of those pesky footnotes.
Consider Pax Renaissance. The rulebook is filled with potted narratives about Eastern and Western ideologies in some kind of bizarre (and ahistorical) royal rumble. It’s enough to make Niall Ferguson blush. But, when it comes to the design itself, there is no more cosmopolitan game about the Renaissance in existence, nor any game with a more global or nuanced understanding of that subject. Now, that isn’t to say that there are elements of the design that sympathize with the ideas Phil presents in his footnotes. Of course there are. Like novels, games speak with many voices. Part of the fun of encountering with Phil’s games can be found in sorting through the different conflicting arguments they host.
Pax Pamir is a little different. As much as I like working with Phil, he and I have different opinions and different design aesthetics. My games tend to be considerably less capacious. Maybe it’s my academic background, but I usually try develop focused arguments. Perhaps with the exception of Root, I want my designs to be narrow, at least when it comes to my explicit arguments. There’s plenty of complexity to be found in a subject without having to draw grand philosophical truths. Most Pax games engage with big concepts such as the nature of the individual and the general role of government. Pax Pamir has little to say about those things. Instead, Pamir takes as its central question the emergence of a state in a region already crowded with geopolitical actors with big ambitions at a very particular moment in history.
For those unfamiliar with the game, a synopsis is warranted. Pax Pamir is a game about Afghanistan in the early part of the nineteenth century. At that time the longstanding Durrani empire had just collapsed, and players take the roles of Afghan leaders attempting to create a new state (or prevent a state from forming). To do this, they may court the favor of outside parties such as the Transcaspian Khanates, the Persian Empire, the Russian Empire, and the British Empire in hopes of securing their power in central Asia.
While Pax Pamir concerns empire—one of board gaming’s most common and most troubling subjects—the game views European imperial projects strictly from the outside. The role of the British and Russian Empires is auxiliary to the central subject of the game. This is a game about Afghanistan.
I chose this subject carefully. For the past decade I had found myself making arguments about gaming’s troubled relationship with Orientalism and imperialist ideologies. I wanted to build a game that would serve as a corrective to that problem. From its earliest stages, I hoped that Pax Pamir would both undermine common assumptions about how people encountered something like the British Empire and how they adapted to its challenge to their sovereignty.
In this process, I couldn’t help but complicate our understanding of those imperial powers as well. Astute readers will perhaps already note a small (intentional) historical slippage. The people of Afghanistan in this period had nothing to do with the British Empire nor with colonialism as it is commonly understood. Instead, it was the East India Company whom they encountered. By that same token, it’s a little silly to speak of Afghanistan as a single political unit during this period. In point of fact, the area was compromised of many dozen small political units, recently controlled by a single empire. At the start of the game, with that empire collapsed, those little elements were spinning into isolation or realignment. Pax Pamir concerns the beginning of Afghanistan as a coherent nation-state.
Though they shared a common history, religion, and a few languages, the individual tribal and urban political units differed widely when it came to the question of their future. Some elements worked with and capitalized upon European interests and other elements pushed hard against that meddling. Some tribal groups sought to unify the region, and others had little interest in solidarity. Given these pressures, one might begin to imagine the difficult political calculations that Dost Mohammad, ruler of what was essentially the Kingdom of Kabul, had to make as he admitted British and Russian emissaries in 1837.
The research for the first edition of the game took nearly three years, and, in the intervening years since its publication I’ve continued to read widely on the subject. I relied extensively on primary documents, especially the Sirāj al-tawārīkh, one of the few existing complete chronicles of this period written by an Afghan who had access to living eyewitnesses and massive archives. Because of the dismal state of local archives thanks to the past fifty years of political turmoil and my own inability to read Persian (the lingua franca of the area at this time), I also relied on the expertise of many professional historians whose work determined the broad contours of my argument.
Of course, it’s one thing to write all of this here. It’s another thing to see that my research and the work of many scholars in a wide range of fields is reflected in every element of the game. Games can be a tricky thing to make arguments with because they are multi-modal forms of expression. My intentions matter little if the game mechanisms themselves tell a different story. I tried my best to make sure every element of the game I produced worked together to advance my argument.
This caused me a lot of trouble when I got to the art.
Pax games require a lot of illustrations. Pax Porfiriana has some 200 cards, and nearly every one of them has a unique picture. The numbers for Pax Pamir and Pax Renaissance are lower but still daunting. Thankfully, for a small-scale project like this, the historical nature of each game’s subject allows me to lean heavily on the public domain. I doubt that any Pax game would have ever been originally published if all of the card illustrations would have needed commissioned. Of course, the success of the series in the last five or six years has made these commissions possible. In the future it’s easy to imagine Pax games using fully commissioned art.
Commissioning illustrations has a few chief advantages so far as I can tell. First, obviously, the art direction of the game can be made more uniform. The hodgepodge Pax aesthetic does not appeal to everyone, though I’ve come to admire Phil Eklund’s original graphic design for Pax Porfiriana. Second, by commissioning art, one can work around gaps in the original archive both in terms of missing illustrations and those which are impossibly problematic. And, to both of these, commissioning art has the advantage of expanding the creative team, offering new possibilities for folks to contribute to the final design.
This brings me to the artwork of Pax Pamir. The art direction of the game would seem to work against the game’s perspective and its arguments. The problem can be stated simply: the game asks players to experience this tumultuous period as Afghani leaders. It is the British, not the Afghans who are foreigners. However, the vast majority of the game’s artwork comes from British sources.
When my brother and I began to prepare the second edition of the game, we had an opportunity to commission new illustrations and change the art direction of the game. Ultimately, after a lot of debate and discussion, decided to essentially keep the same art direction as before, and, in fact, even came to feature more art done by British observers. How we got to that point is a little complicated.
Before I get to the political elements of our decision, it’s worth spending a little time with the general card design of the Pax games and of Pax Pamir in particular. One of the things that sets the graphic design of Pax Pamir apart from the graphic design of the other Pax games is the way that the card layout emphasizes illustration. Just compare this card from Pax Porfiriana from this cards from Pamir.
There were a few objectives to this shift in layout. First, the cards in Pax games contain a lot of information. One can only go so far when it comes to organizing a clear information hierarchy. I wanted to give players a single unique image for each card which allow experienced players to quickly sort through the market and understand their strategic options.
Secondly, I wanted to emphasize the illustrations because they fleshed out the world of the game. Like a lot of players coming to Pax Porfiriana for the first time, I didn’t know much about the Mexican Revolution. But, if the specific characters and events were largely unfamiliar, the game knows that most of its players understand who the US Rangers are thanks to decades of westerns. In this way, the game plays with our understanding of the (American) south-west during the end of the age of cowboys.
Pax Porfiriana doesn’t need to lean too hard on its illustration in order to immerse players. Some illustrations are only tangentially related to subjects of the cards and one black-and-white photo melts into another.
I didn’t have this benefit when working on a game about Afghanistan in the 1820s. No matter how many footnotes I wrote or how long each of my card descriptions were, many of the details and color of the story I was trying to tell was going to be just white noise. I needed big, evocative illustrations to bridge the gap and give players something to hold in their minds.
Thankfully, as luck would have it, I had two amazing works to draw upon: James Atkinson’s Sketches in Afghanistan and James Rattray’s Scenery, Inhabitants & Costumes of Afghanistan.
Both works have a similar provenance. During the East India Company’s ill-fated regime change, many members of the invasion with artistic training committed their talents to capturing the region. If that sentence makes you a little anxious, you’re not wrong to be worried. Most western art with non-western subjects is racist in some degree ranging from the kind of subtle framing described by Said’s arguments in Orientalism or with an over-the-top racism that extends right up into our present day. When showing this tradition to students, it’s common to look at company logos and mascots (in the American or British contexts especially) and slowly watch subtle racist symbols regress into images that positively scream for attention .
But, it would be a mistake to assume this trend continues to get worse the farther back one looks. Racist thought, like thinking about gender, is something that doesn’t always fit into our notion that the past was so much more backward than the present. This is especially true of the early nineteenth and eighteenth centuries.
Both Rattray and Atikinson were careful observers of the many peoples they encountered. Their illustrations brim with detail and humanity. And, why shouldn’t they? I found myself forcing to not forget that, for many of the characters of this game, the identity groups that matter so much to us today would have seemed silly to them. Back then, different kinds of associations mattered. The isolationism that we associate with the region was, in some respects, a relatively modern innovation. Afghanistan was a place visited by Alexander and that sat along the north branch of the Silk Road for thousands of years. It had a rich and complex history. For many Afghans, encounters with a stranger was the norm, not the exception.
In this sense, the wonderful illustrations of some European observes didn’t seem so out-of-place anymore. These pieces were drawn by eyewitnesses to the events of the game, and I can hardly improve upon that. By commissioning an artist to produce drawings that would likely end up using these originals for historical reference.
Of course, these aren’t the only artists whose works were featured in the game. I also drew on Indian and Persian artists to provide players with a sense of the wide range of artistic representation that would have been familiar with those people living at this time. Sadly, many gaps remain and cards associated with many notable figures likely had to go without their correct illustration. In those instances, I opted to use anonymous people found on the edges of other, more famous works to fill out my roster, keeping care to keep illustration appropriate to both time and place.
In a sense, the predominance of Anglo and Anglo-Indian art in the game also reflects my own subject position and the position of the game itself. Pax Pamir is, after all, a game published in English, by a person who cannot read or speak Dari. I have done my best to account for the limitations of my own subject position by reading primary documents and by reading the works of historians and writers with far more expertise than myself. Ultimately, I think I wanted to keep Atkinson’s and Rattray’s drawings central to the game because I think their position mirrored my own. I’m quite sure, for all their care and detail, they still suffered from the misconceptions and biases of their period, and I’m sure that’s true of myself as well. But, for all of those limitations, I think they produced a really remarkable and true body of work, and I hope that, in my own small way, Pax Pamir is a fitting tribute to that same time and place.
NOTE: This essay was originally featured as a guest blog during Wehrlegig's first Kickstarter back in September 4, 2018.